Anton Hecht Makes Gameful Artwork in Unexpected Ways | Episode 320

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Anton Hecht is a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. He recently finished a Ph.D. in games for art in public space with others. He makes gameful artworks, across mediums, including with orchestras and dancers. He makes installations and experiences in non-traditional spaces. He has created work for many galleries and arts centers, including the South Bank in London. Much of his work is filmed and placed online where he has over two million views on his YouTube channel. He began the idea of Orchestral Flashmob in a bus garage in Newcastle. He looks for ways to engage others and to get them to contribute to making artwork in some manner.

 

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Full episode transcription

Rob:
Hey, engagers, and welcome to another episode of the Professor Game podcast. And we have Anton with us today. But Anton, we need to know, are you prepared to engage?

Anton:
Yes, I’m prepared to engage and eager to. Finally.

Rob:
Amazing. Amazing. Let’s go. We did have a couple of technical glitches before getting to this point, so fingers crossed everything goes as smoothly as it can go, because we have Anton hest with us today, who is a lecturer at Sheffield Hallum University. He recently finished a PhD in games for art in public space with others, and he makes gameful artworks across mediums, including orchestras and dancers.

Rob:
He makes installations and experiences in nontraditional spaces. He has created work for many galleries and art centers, including the South bank in London. And much of his work is filmed and placed online, where he has over 2 million views in a YouTube channel. He began the idea of orchestral flash mob in a bus garage in Newcastle, and he looks for ways to engage others and to get them to contribute to making artwork in some manner. So, Anton, is there anything we’re missing from that intro?

Anton:
No, it’s completely comprehensive.

Rob:
Let’s do this. So, Anton, run us through a day in your shoes. We want to be there with you. We want to live a little bit of your life, so to speak.

Anton:
Okay, well, it normally involves either preparing lectures and workshops for the university or actually being here in the university and doing those, often around games or some kind of game subject. It also involves making artworks in the public space. So I’ll be looking into games, researching games for the lectures, for the teaching, but it kind of also feeds into my own kind of practice of making these artworks that have some kind of gameful principle or edge to it. So lots of listening to podcasts, including yours and ludology and other design ones. Lots of reading research papers as well.

Anton:
So getting the kind of ideas around games, game studies, and also play theory. I’m quite into the idea of play and how that’s separate to games. So lots of that kind of stuff. Try and get a break and go to the gym. I’ve got three daughters.

Anton:
They’re all quite grown up now, so I normally sort of like, ring them and then give them money for them to purchase various things. So, yeah, lots of family, lots of researching, playing, developing games. I try and go to art galleries quite a lot as well, or see theater and that, which also feeds into it. And yeah, I try to play like a digital or board game at least once a week as well, to get the ideas of the mechanics and themes that are out there. So, yeah, just a general kind of Milwaukee of immersing myself in various cultural works and art facts and then drawing from that to make my own work or to incorporate it into lectures.

Anton:
Also workshops with the public as well. I do lots of stuff with community groups and schools and things alongside the university. Lecturing.

Rob:
Absolutely. So plenty of exciting stuff, good entertainment as well, and getting inspiration from the places that you’re looking for it. For sure, Sir Anton, I’m sure you’ve done plenty of things. Definitely. Going through a PhD has lots of ups and downs, as most people who have done that definitely know.

Rob:
But we want to know of one of those favorite fails or first attempt in learning, especially when it has to do with games, as you seem to enjoy very much. So can you guide us through one of those where you were trying to do something and it just didn’t work or whatever that looks like, and how did you get out of it? What did you learn?

Anton:
Essentially so many.

Rob:
Actually.

Anton:
I think one that just recently comes to mind is actually, I’d kind of been quite interested in folk games as well, like traditional games like rock, paper, scissors and things like that, and using those as a kind of base for making modern game for artworks. And I was doing a workshops with the students. I was quite into what’s called those paper fortune tellers, the origami ones. I don’t know if you know them, so they sometimes called kuchi catchers. So you write numbers at the top and you fold it and then you can manipulate it, I think so you.

Rob:
Can send us a picture.

Anton:
And then you move them around, you can lift the flaps and you get questions, and then you have to give answers to them underneath. Anyway, I thought with the students, I’d set a kind of assignment where we could use those and they had to make them and then try and turn them into better games. So thing with folk games, they’re often seen as lesser games because they don’t always have a goal or a kind of hard mechanic or anything. So anyway, I set this assignment and I got all these kind of papers out and everything, and I went through a lot of videos about how to fold it and that. And yeah, it was a lesson in game design principles, but just as the lesson went on, I could tell that they weren’t really that into it.

Anton:
And then also it hasn’t actually got uncertainty, which is a big game principle. So really it’s quite limited. It really is just a kind of playground game that doesn’t really hold much appeal for these adult kind of game design students. Who are looking to get to unity as quick as possible. So, yes, that went all quite bad, really, and it was running out of steam and I decided to knock it on the head.

Anton:
I didn’t do it with any other of the groups afterwards. I kind of switched tack after that. But, yes, that was one thing where I think I was trying too hard to bring in some kind of folk game and kind of inspire people who are interested in digital games to have a go at a bit of origami. Yeah, that didn’t really work out because it has no uncertainty in it.

Rob:
What would you do differently if you had a redo or knowing what you had a similar opportunity? Would you start in a different way? What would you go for?

Anton:
Yeah, so I’d probably plan it more with, how can you add to it, really? So that would be the basic kind of almost. I was thinking of it like an interface almost, really? So it would be, could you add bits to it? Could you somehow make it have uncertainty?

Anton:
I think it’s the fact that you just write on it and then it’s, like, stuck, that it doesn’t change. So if they could have bits that they stuck on top or something. So it might be that. The challenge is, take this origami object that is quite static and doesn’t have any element of uncertainty. And how could you put uncertainty in it?

Anton:
So I’d probably change the learning kind of drive for it and make them try and find ways to make it more gameful in some sense. So, yeah, rather than just plonking them down something and say, make a game with it, give them a more kind of strategic focused concept, such as create uncertainty from this object.

Rob:
Good stuff. Good thinking, for sure. And let’s actually go for the opposite. Now, how about a time where you set out to do things? They actually worked out.

Rob:
Let’s talk about a proud moment. One of those things that, well, you set out to do this, you managed, and you basically want to tell the story.

Anton:
Well, I’ve been doing these artworks where people play just one note at a time, and I filmed them and put them together. And my idea was to have this grand piano in a bus garage and to get the public to come over and play one note each with pianist who would play the chords. But actually, as it got closer to it, I did think, like, I don’t really want to do this, and I don’t really want to get a big piano to get in and get the public to do it. And then I started thinking like, oh, no one’s going to want to do it at all. But actually, as it came, we did put the piano in and we set all these cameras up and it was the pianist in the tails.

Anton:
And, yeah, literally loads of people came over and played and know each, and they’re all filmed. And then when I edited it together, it was a really, like, easy edit. And then I put it online and, yeah, it went quite viral. It got lots and lots of views, lots of press and everything. It was quite interesting.

Anton:
And that was also, like, my first, actually, because when I put it on, it was quite a while ago, but it was like when Guitar hero was out. And I actually got an email from one of the kind of team that do guitar hearing. It was a good gamification of the piano. And it was the first time I’d heard that phrase, actually. So I thought like, oh, gamification, what’s that?

Anton:
So I started to research it and that. So, yeah, I realized that somehow, innately, I had been doing things that could be seen as games. Do you know what I mean? Like, they had a lot of gameful properties. If you go back all the way to people like Kalios and who’s inger.

Anton:
And that fed into it. And actually, yeah, this bus stage and sonata thing I was doing was quite similar to some of the kind of mimetic interface, digital music games that were out there, which were about lowering the kind of threshold for people being able to enter the musical experience and make music, and the idea of mastery in that. So, yeah, I’d kind of built it all into this piano thing in a kind of analog way. So I’m quite interested also in the transfer or transposition between kind of digital structures and analog structures.

Rob:
An interesting one, and it seems like it went quite well. And again, given how it went and how happy you were with the result, is there anything that you would call is perhaps is one of the success factors, one of the things that you say this is probably the reason why it went so well?

Anton:
Yeah, well, I think actually there was a few different things. And now looking back, I mean, I don’t know how much about game. Well, obviously you’re professor game, but the idea of the magic circle, I think, which I didn’t know then, but this idea about it’s the area where the game happens, and you’ve got the lip and it’s about getting people to cross over, but also this idea about seducing them over, having something that will draw them. And I think having the grand piano there, it was a bigger draw than I thought. But also on top.

Anton:
Before I’d just been doing these projects, people played one note and they were just sort of like. Actually, it was more like those instructional videos on YouTube where they’ve got the number written on the note or something. Whereas with this, having the kind of pianist next to them with the tails, that kind of human, almost like a games master, to introduce them and show them which key to press, and then doing it with them, I think, gave them an added sense of security and safety. Also some of the qualities of the magic circle to come over, cross the lip and enter the kind of experience, in a sense. So, yeah, having the additionality of an actual pianist there, and also the fact that it was a full on grand piano, not just one of those cheap stand up things, kind of created like a world apart, as they say about the magic circle.

Anton:
It’s a world apart, but in the.

Rob:
World, an interesting one, for sure. And given your experience, and I know you’ve just given us an insight into a couple of them, but given that you’ve done plenty more of this, I’m sure that when you approach an idea that you want to use games on, or use these approaches on, probably have some way of doing things, let’s call it, or maybe it’s called a process, a series of steps. I don’t know. We basically want to be there. If you were creating something, what would be happening?

Rob:
What would be the things that you would do, essentially?

Anton:
Well, as I said, I mean, quite a lot of it is research. So I would mean, I look on Reddit a lot as well and things. So I’m quite interested in folk structures. So I try and look at folk games and games that people know as well, and then from that, try and take out something that can then become part of a kind of further developed game or artwork in some sense. So, yeah, a lot of looking online and everything.

Anton:
And then sometimes I would do a kind of got a little studio, and I’ve got some people that I work with, so I might start to play, test something in the studio, try it out with them before taking it out. Yeah, because it’s process of iteration, obviously, but because what I do is, like, in public space, before I get to the public space, I need to know that it’s at least got some kind of ability to work. So, yeah, I’ll often look at folk things, try and draw from that something that I can then develop into something, test it out in a small studio situation, and then take that out onto the streets to actually make it, but also quite a lot of it depends on location and that. So also, I kind of research, look at footfall, that kind of thing. So, yeah.

Anton:
Which is the best places to do it? Which places look visually the most interesting as well?

Rob:
Amazing. So lots of research and maybe that has a little bit to do with you doing a phd.

Anton:
Yeah. Although when I say research also, it’s that idea that about how easy, well, not rules transference. So one of the big barriers to people entering games is rules and being able to learn the rules to get involved. So, yeah, this idea of drawing from a folk cachet, it’s like they’ve already got some kind of idea about how it operates, or they might even recognize something in it and think, oh, I played that when I was a child or something, and that makes them want to come into the experience in some sense. So it’s not something that they find hard, but it’s something that actually attracts them because they may have some idea about it or it might be something they want to learn.

Anton:
Yeah. So one of the things I did was this thing called sign language dual. So it’s based around rock, paper, scissors, but it’s new components that you do through sign language. So the idea is that by playing the game, you learn sign language in some sense so people understand what paper, scissors. I’ve just put an extra level on it, which is that you play it using sign language.

Rob:
That sounds very cool. Thank you for all those ideas, Anton, because I’m sure the engagers will certainly take a bunch of those experiences and implement them in their future projects. Anton, talking about experience and the things that you’ve done and that we know have gone well and not so well, is there something that you would say is a best practice or one thing that when you’re creating these gameful experiences is something that you say, well, do this and you’ll at least be a little bit better off.

Anton:
Yeah, it’s difficult, I suppose. It’s think of each end of the project. So in some sense, what’s the objective? What are you making? And then maybe what’s the outcome?

Anton:
What are people going to get from it? But it’s also balancing that idea. Yeah, I suppose for me, actually, yeah. Best practice is balancing the kind of work that you want to make and what you want to create alongside what the experience for the user, like it’s a contract, really. So as I said, I build the work up out of people interacting with whatever it is.

Anton:
The artifact, which you could say is like the game object in arts of the idea is, though, that for people to come and have a go and get involved. They must get some, obviously reward from that, some kind of pleasure or excitement or something. So balancing the need for you to want to create something and make something with others alongside what the others get from that in terms of experience and enjoyment.

Rob:
And that kind of statement is easily, I want to say, confused by some people when thinking, and this is atypical confusion. I’ve seen when you’re talking about gamification, gameful design and so on, when you say this, sometimes people think, oh, yeah, you have to give them points and rewards and all sorts of extrinsic things. And that can work. I’m not saying you don’t use that, it’s not ideal, but sometimes you do need them. But there are other things that you can say.

Rob:
It can be about the experience, as you were saying. There can be about expressing their creativity. It can be about many different ways in which people can engage, and there’s many ways to motivate people. And you can see this in many different types of games. It’s not always about getting more points.

Rob:
Sometimes, as you were saying, it’s just about getting a better experience in some way. Shape or. Yep.

Anton:
Back to Kaylee, I don’t know, like Kalios, the original guy who came up with the four kind of elements of quite. I always use that as a kind of guideline, starting point as well. And also what you’re saying, sometimes it’s visceral, that idea about something quite physical as well. One kind of game for artwork I did was like swing ball, but I kind of made a swing ball that you could play on lampposts in city centers. So it’s the idea that obviously a lot.

Anton:
It’s almost a kind of casual game, swing ball, because it’s taking tennis and making it easier for people to play. It’s something people in their kind of knowledge base will have an idea about how to play swing ball. It can be a bit not that exciting a game if you just play it in your back garden. But the idea that people got the freedom to play it in the street and there were people walking past and everything, and they were in the middle of the town centre and this lamppost had been turned into a swing know, people found that quite exciting and they actually played up to it. So also this idea of people get excited, they get quite performative.

Anton:
So, I mean, there’s Bart Simon’s research about the Wii where he talks about gesture, like when they play Wii tennis, rather than just using their wrists and lightly moving. Know, people do all the moves and sometimes, you know, it’s providing them with the opportunity to be transgressive while playing the game or something that gives them a kind of energetic kind of dynamism. So the location of the game can be important if it’s that kind of thing like with Pokemon go and things, it allowed you to take over cities.

Rob:
And totally with Pokemon go, I remember the good and the bad. Right? Like got people going, people walking.

Anton:
Well, the idea of public playing in public and that society accepts children playing in public, hopscotch. But there seems something quite transgressive if suddenly adults start know some person in a business suit or something is doing hopscotch in the middle of the.

Rob:
Totally, totally. I love the idea for sure. Anton, as you mentioned, you’ve been a listener for a while. You’ve heard many of the guests for sure. Is there somebody that you say, well, I wish we already had an interview with this person or that person or, I don’t know, sort of a future guest perhaps for professor game.

Anton:
Have you had ESPN Arcef? I’ve not heard him on your way say it.

Rob:
No, I have no idea. I hadn’t heard it before.

Anton:
No. The guy who came up with Cybertext and wrote the implied player how to do game research, but he also wrote about the first kind of interactive fiction. So he runs the online game studies website. So he wrote about interactive fiction. So that’s the idea.

Anton:
Narratives. Yeah. So he came up with the concept of a gothic action, which is that people have to do something in order to affect the narrative. So that was pre game studies when he started that. So he was looking at like adventure books, but obviously that then transferred into digital games and board games and that he’s big in game studies and he came up with one of his big books of theories and research is the idea about that players do actions that affect the outcome.

Anton:
So the idea of uncertainty, which I’ve already mentioned on within cultural products and participation. And so yeah, Espanasov would be probably quite.

Rob:
Absolutely. It sounds like an exciting one for sure. And you mentioned one of his books. I don’t know if that’s what you want to go for or something entirely different, but is there a book you would recommend, your fellow engagers?

Anton:
Well, other people probably said about like Zimmerman’s rules of, you know, it’s kind of like the bible of kind of game design a bit. So I might be wrong. Maybe it’s not, maybe it’s just I think that. So Eric Zimmerman’s rules of play. So there’s lots of interviews with different game designers and things like that.

Anton:
And it’s used quite a lot as a textbook in game studies, but it is very informative. And, yeah, I read through it quite quickly. It’s got lots in.

Rob:
Amazing, amazing, fantastic book, for sure. And talking about recommendations, let’s actually focus on you, Anton. What is it that you do better than at least most other people? Because as you’ve heard me say many times, when it’s a superpower, doesn’t mean it’s exclusive, that you’re the only one who has it. But what is that thing that you think lights you up and that perhaps again, you’ve done so much, probably do better than other people, I suppose.

Anton:
Yeah, it’s a way to take game structures, game ideas, and transfer them really quickly and instantly into quite exciting artistic experiences. So, yeah, just the idea of making things quite quickly and simply that can have some kind of impact and get people involved. So I guess that’s mine. So like an immediate iteration, like a kind of quick prototyping, really, in some sense, amazing.

Rob:
And that’s really important. Every time we’re making a workshop or a class where we’re talking about gamification, gameful concepts, the idea of having rapid prototyping cycles is crucial because that’s where you actually get the opportunity to see if whatever you’re doing makes sense or not.

Anton:
I was just taking the students through this morning through those five podcasts that you did about creating gameful products. So gamification products. So, yeah, I was taking those. And your first one, like you say about objective as well, have the objective about what you want to make. But I think the third one you do talk about rapid prototyping and that.

Anton:
And actually, the idea of rapid prototyping as well does fit in with, in art, they talk a lot about, there’s a kind of artwork that’s bricolage and that which is like making with what’s around you. So rather than using like, expensive art materials or taking long times to cast things and that, you just get lots of material that’s around you and piece it together and make like a collage or bricolage or something. And, yeah, as I got into games, I realized that rapid prototyping has a lot of that kind of bricolage making instantly with what’s around you, kind of context collaging and that.

Rob:
Amazing. Those are two concepts I had never heard put together, but after you hear it, you can’t unhear it. It makes sense, right?

Anton:
Well, if you think about surrealist, I don’t know if you know about. Yeah, like surrealist, actually. So there’s lots of arts movements have been interested in games and surrealism. They did the exquisite corpse idea, which once more is about uncertainty and confusing authorship, where each person draws one bit of a drawing but doesn’t see the other ones, if you might have heard that. But yes, there’s lots of ways that art and art groups have been quite interested in using gameful properties already.

Anton:
And, yeah, I did this chess piece where as you played chess, it kind of made a drawing. And there was a work by John Cage, the musician, and Marcel Duchamp where they played a chess game. And when you moved the pieces, when it touched the square, it made an electric sound. And so that was like the musical score that came from the play. So, yes, that’s one of the other ideas around.

Anton:
It’s about breaking over open the kind of play cycle, the kind of relationship between the player and the game object and having some outcome that’s beyond just the play move. In a sense. It’s maybe a kind of trace or document or a kind of recording. So through playing the game, you actually expand it and make an artwork from the moves. So the moves are still intrinsic in the game, but they create something afterwards.

Anton:
That’s quite a good way of thinking, also about if you wanted to make something like an artwork from a game.

Rob:
Amazing in a way. And you being an artist, this might be an interesting question for you. There’s been discussion around whether games are pieces of art themselves. Video games especially, that they have so much artwork within them. What would you say to something like that?

Rob:
Does it sound weird? Does it make sense? How does it make sense or not?

Anton:
Yeah, well, here we’ve got the game museum in Sheffield, and they’ve just recently had an exhibition of game art. There is a big crossover. And. Yeah, obviously games are art. Obviously I’m saying that.

Anton:
But I teach here. One of the subjects is game art. So you could say there’s game art where people devise the kind of artifacts and everything and the kind of elements that are in it and the design principles that go into that. But actually gameplay itself, the experience, that’s also the aesthetic, the play experience of it. So, as in something like Wii tennis or dance map, you’re almost making people into performers.

Anton:
So games actually have an added aesthetic over other artworks, as they can get people to move and kind of act in a certain way. So sometimes I think of games as almost like scores, like a piano score or a dance score. It’s a kind of structure, like the rules that people enact and that creates the kind of game artwork, in a sense. So, yes, like at the game museum, they’ve got Monument Valley. I don’t know if you ever played that game, but yes, that’s an incredibly strong piece of art, really.

Anton:
And it’s based on Escher and impossible worlds and the confusion between dimensions and mean. It’s aesthetically beautiful. But the actual gameplay itself is also. The gameplay experience is also, you could say, beautiful in some sense. And there is lots of crossovers.

Anton:
What’s it like? Think about shadow of the Colossus, isn’t it? That game with the massive creatures and the way that they’re shown and everything. There’s a big crossover with ideas like the sublime in art and that. And as I said, there was like the Fluxus group in the 60s.

Anton:
They were big into games, and they used to do a lot of things with chess sets and that, and make interactive games for people to play as well. So actually, Yoko Ono did a famous artwork with chess called white chess, where both sets are white pieces. So when you play it, you get confused about which ones are yours. Games are obviously art, so monument. I mean, lots of games are in art galleries now as well.

Anton:
So, like MoMA has shown Jason Romere and things. So, I mean, it can be hacking games. It can be game artwork, actually, even avatars. There’s a lot of avatars that have been constructed that you could say they’re pure artwork in a sense.

Rob:
Yeah, totally. I completely agree. I don’t know if we’ve had this mixture of art and games before. I can’t remember if we have formally had an artist or somebody who’s really dedicated to this world. So I thought it could be an interesting perspective as well, because again, you never know.

Rob:
My perspective as an engineer is definitely not half worth, in the sense of art, to what your perspective can have. So I wanted to make sure I got that answer. So, Anton, we get to the difficult question now. What would you say is your favorite game?

Anton:
Well, it quite possibly could be Plants v zombies, which I don’t know if you played that, but yes, I did become addicted to that for quite a while. At the moment, I’m playing Marvel Snap, which I’m finding quite intriguing. I would say Plants v zombies was possibly. I mean, I did play games back in the day and things know from sort of like space invaders onwards, but I don’t know, there’s something about plants v zombies. Actually, I played Zuma, which is the pop cam game before that.

Anton:
So I play all kind of casual games. I’m not like a hardcore gamer in some sense. I quite like those kind of easier to access and enter games.

Rob:
Amazing. Thank you for that as well, Anton. And before we finish the interview, we want to know where we can find out more about you, your work, anything you’re thinking about. Of course, if you have any final words, any piece of advice you want to leave us with, then as you know, we will say it’s game over.

Anton:
Yeah, well, there’s the website, which is my name, WordPress.com. If you type into Google, you’ll probably get my YouTube channel. That’s got a lot of stuff on. And I’ve also got a research. If you type in Anton Hest research, you’ll get my research website, which has got a lot of the works I made from my.

Anton:
So. And if you go on research gate, you can read the PhD as well that I’ve just finished in games under my name, Anton Hest as well. Yeah, I suppose the thing I’d leave is that games are, and I think a lot of people that are making games are actually making artworks as well. So I would say that people you’re making gameful experience or gamification experiences or anything like that, think about the aesthetics and then think, is there something beyond the actual gameplay itself that makes it into an artwork? And is that something you could use maybe to actually even increase the power of the.

Rob:
Hmm, interesting and deep. Thank you for that reflection, Anton. I think we can profit from that one. And thinking about things in a different way is know precisely what brought in the perspective of using games for things that are different from entertainment and what some people call escapism. So thank you for that as well.

Rob:
And Anton, thanks for being here. Thanks for taking the time, for helping us push through the technical issues that we had at the start.

Anton:
Like the Matrix, there’s a glitch in the system. You went backwards and that bullet sort of like just went through you really slowly. That was amazing the way you did that.

Rob:
Totally. So thanks again for being here, for going through all of this. However, as you know, and the engagers, the rest of the engagers know as well, at least for now, and for today, it is time to say that it’s game over. Hey, engagers. And thank you for listening to the Professor Game podcast.

Rob:
And I hope you enjoyed this interview with Anton. And if you have any questions that you would like to ask future guests, please go to professorgame.com slash question and ask your question. Once selected, it’ll come up in a future episode and you’ll get your answer live with a guest. And remember, please, before you go on to your next mission, before you click continue, remember please to subscribe using your favorite podcast app and listen to the next episode of professor game. See you there.

End of transcription

One Reply to “Anton Hecht Makes Gameful Artwork in Unexpected Ways | Episode 320”

  1. Pingback: I am on the Professor game podcast. | anton hecht

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